If you are going to write a new popular history of Winston Churchill and the Battle of Britain, you’d better come up with an interesting angle, or you risk covering no new ground—or worse, if you are a modern academic, you produce revisionist nonsense and sociological vomit.
In The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During The Blitz, Erik Larson, the author of huge bestseller The Devil in the White City, is no academic. He gives us the homebody version of the prime minister, and develops the part of the story that took place in the dining rooms and living quarters of 10 Downing Street, and the country house weekend retreat of Chequers and Ditchley, Churchill’s “full-moon” stand-in for Chequers, during that fateful year.
Larson opens his story with Churchill meeting a reluctant King George VI, who would much rather have had his buddy the Earl of Halifax get the nod. Churchill took over just before British and French resistance to the German invasion collapsed. The British evacuated Dunkirk, and many in England assumed the English Channel wouldn’t stop the surge of National Socialist forces pursuing behind.
In fact, Adolf Hitler expected—based on recent British waffling—that the Brits would sue for a negotiated peace without Germany having to invade, or perhaps even having to fire a shot. After that, he could turn his attention to the conquest of the remainder of Eastern Europe and Russia. But Hitler was not dealing with Neville Chamberlain anymore. There was no surrender in Churchill.
The Nazis’ decision to wage a preliminary air war must have seemed like a no-brainer at first. Even Churchill was fearful of the possibility that his country would simply cave. On the final day of the Dunkirk evacuation, he gave his famous June 4 speech to the House of Commons with the rousing lines “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender. . .” Larson reminds us that as “the House roared its approval, Churchill muttered to a colleague, ‘And…we will fight them with the butt end of broken bottles, because that’s bloody well all we’ve got.’”
Between July 1940 to June 1941, Hitler sent every airplane he had against England, Scotland, and Wales. At first, the Germans confined raids to the English coast, but even though the weather stayed beautiful for weeks, nobody was under any illusion about the storm that was coming. Rebecca West described the “unstained heaven of that perfect summer,” when she and her husband walked in London’s Regent’s Park as barrage balloons—“silver elephantines”—drifted overhead. Then came August 13, Adlertag, “Eagle Day,” and the onslaught began.
Churchill had been feverishly preparing. He put his friend and political ally Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook, in charge of upping aircraft production for the Royal Air Force (RAF). Beaverbrook, originally Canadian, ran a newspaper empire based on the Daily Express. Beaverbrook was headstrong, rapacious for getting his way, a lover of political and personal intrigue—and he knew absolutely nothing about building airplanes.
That he was perfect for the job was something perhaps only Churchill could have foreseen. Churchill placed ace scientist-manager Frederick Lindemann, “the Prof,” over scientific development, and appointed Major General Hastings “Pug” Ismay as military chief of staff. This was his team during the first year of the war.
Living at home with Churchill were his wife Clementine and his daughter, Mary, who turned 18 in September of 1940. Churchill’s son Randolph had recently married Pamela Digby, and she became pregnant in spring 1940. In October, Pam had a boy, Winston, Churchill’s fourth grandchild and namesake. Randolph was often away either serving in the military, carousing, or both, but Pamela was very much part of the Churchill family.
Churchill’s private life and public schedule were tended by several men, including assistant personal secretary John Colville, who kept a famous diary throughout the war that has proved invaluable to gaggles of later researchers. Larson presents news details on Colville’s personal romantic turmoil during the time, and the secretary’s longing to get into military action and fly for the RAF.
Although circumstances seemed propitious on the German side, Larson brings in the viewpoint of Wing Commander Adolph Galland, who recognized that “the British had several major advantages that he and his fellow pilots could do nothing to neutralize. Not only did the RAF fly and fight over friendly territory, which ensured that surviving pilots would fight again; its pilots also fought with the existential brio of men who believed they were battling a far larger air force with nothing less than Britain’s survival at stake.”
Yet the Germans started with a technological edge that ought to have been telling. The Luftwaffe had discovered how to use long-range intersecting navigational radio beams to guide bombers to their targets, something the Brits didn’t even think was possible. Larson goes into interesting detail on the “Battle of the Beams” portion of the Battle of Britain, and the diverting tale of how 28-year-old British scientist Reginal V. Jones, a deputy in the intelligence branch of the Air Ministry, figured out what the Germans were up to.
But radar, radio countermeasures, and brave RAF pilots could only do so much. The Nazis bombed and bombed. The autumn and winter brought the worst of it, with raids on London beginning September 7. A huge swath of the city of Coventry was destroyed on the night of November 14, 1940, a full moon evening. The destruction was so great that Allied forces later sometimes estimated bombing damage in Europe in units of “Conventries.” Larson mines the accounts of the people who experienced the onslaught firsthand.
. . . it was a night of first experiences and sensations. The smell of cordite after a detonation. The sound of glass being swept into piles. London resident Phyllis Warner, a teacher in her thirties who kept a detailed journal of life during the war, heard the sound of a bomb falling for the first time, ‘an appalling shriek like a train whistle growing nearer and nearer, and then a sickening crash reverberating through the earth.’ As if it would do any good, she put her pillow over her head. Writer Cowles recalled ‘the deep roar of falling masonry like the thunder of breakers against the shore.’ The worst sound, she said, was the low, droning noise made by the masses of aircraft, which reminded her of a dentist’s drill.
People began to develop entirely rational fears of being buried alive.
Wrote novelist Rose Macaulay, on Monday, September 23: ‘I am getting a burying-phobia, result of having seen so many houses and blocks of flats reduced to piles of ruins from which people can’t be extracted in time to live, and feel I would rather sleep in the street, but know I mustn’t do this.’
Meanwhile, those at the Churchill residences soldiered on. By December 1940, Pam Churchill had figured out that husband Randolph was a gambling addict and womanizer. During the sea voyage with his unit to Egypt, Randolph racked up the equivalent of $350,000 in gambling debts, of which he and Pam could pay precisely nothing—the Churchills were never particularly wealthy.
Once in Cairo, Randolph began a dalliance with socialite Momo Marriott, the wife of a British general. Pamela suspected something was going on, but being saddled with the impossible gambling debt was reason enough to separate. The marriage was effectively over by 1941.
Pamela Churchill was no wilting violet. In spring 1941, she had a fervent affair with American railway fortune scion Averell Harriman, Harry Hopkins’ man in London, and overseer of the British end of the Lend-Lease Program. The Churchills, whose dismay at their son’s antics was deep and ongoing, were understanding of this. When Harriman left for Russia, the affair ended, but the two married many years later when both were widowed.
Pamela’s long and rich-dude-studded life is not part of Larson’s account, but she became quite the courtesan in the 1950s, and ended up a U.S. Democratic party shill and United States ambassador to France under President Clinton. In the narrative, Larson seeks to portray Pam with sympathy, but she comes across as quite the schemer. Yet it is hard not to feel for any woman who had the misfortune to be involved with young Randolph Churchill.
The Elusive Churchill
The most involved and sensitive portraits in the book are those of 18-year-old Mary Churchill and 30-year-old Churchill private secretary John Colville. Colville had previously redacted a great deal of personal detail from his published diary—matters he considered of little interest to anyone but himself. Larson digs these up in the archives, and discovers that Colville was madly in love with Gay Margesson, a woman who didn’t return his affection (and was likely hunting bigger social game).
The closeness of danger and death intensified Colville’s longings, and he spent much of 1940 in an alternating attempt to both court and forget about her. He also very much wanted to fight. Churchill wouldn’t let him go at first, but the prime minister eventually relented and Colville joined the RAF, where he served as a reconnaissance pilot for several months. Colville returned to his duties for Churchill a wiser and more seasoned man—a change that was noticeable to all around him.
Mary Churchill in Larson’s account seems a sweet girl who is at first confounded and bewildered when her debutante year is upended by war and politics. She is also swept up in the emotions of the moment, and agrees to an engagement to a man she hardly knows. As she gains her footing and finds her place in the war effort, she is able to dissolve the engagement with more-or-less no hard feelings, and by 1941, we find Mary manning an anti-aircraft gun as a member of the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the British equivalent of the Women’s Army Corps.
The domestic Churchill comes across as warm and inspiring, but his personality remains vague in Larson’s account, a great sun that others revolve around, but whose light is too bright to stare into for too long. Churchill’s love of wine and cigars is amply illustrated, and the many instances of his donning a personally designed sky-blue jumpsuit romper (“it made him look like a fierce pale blue Easter egg gone to war”) are delightfully recounted.
Eventually, the steady drumbeat of the diarists’ recollections does paint a picture of sorts. They depict Winston Churchill as a fairly warm fellow who seems to have given his relationships with his children his best shot, yet who somehow failed to connect with most of them—but not through lack of trying. The very fact that he worried about and tried to look after his family and staff while also shouldering the greatest task of the twentieth century speaks volumes. Churchill wasn’t only great. He was also good.
One could wish for additional development of the Pam Churchill-Averell Harriman affair, which is more hinted at by Larson than laid out, and even more on the delightfully scheming, pushy Lord Beaverbrook, the most colorful of the characters surrounding Churchill. The milieu of the British upper classes can feel to one not born to the manor like watching seahorses or octopuses mate—fascinating and sickening all at once.
Still, the book is enormous as is, and at times it threatens to become a plod through the blatantly obvious. But the story Larson tells is infinitely worth repeating. Larson claims to have been searching for his own “personal Churchill” throughout the creation of the book. I like to think there is a little Churchill bust within the Oval Office of every thoughtful person’s soul—a bust that needs the occasional tending-to and buffing up. For that task, “The Splendid and the Vile” makes an excellent dust rag.